Stormhouse +

I produced a pair of alternative renderings of my Stormhouse project for a course catalog cover.  Coincidentally, the project was also seemingly and subtly misappropriated for use in the advertisement of a software application.

Stormhouse perspective (2009)

I made only minor adjustments to the design for this, and instead concentrated (as I did with the earlier renderings for AIArchitect) on producing a rendering that was technologically atavistic – in other words, one that would be difficult to interpret as either produced using “traditional” means or using computer technology.

While in architecture school, and for several months after I graduated, I was employed by a premier architectural visualization firm (a “high-end renderhouse” is the sort of jargon some architects might use). I spent my time there helping to develop renderings and videos of various fairly uninteresting architectural projects, renderings that aimed at the seeming verisimilitude of photographs or live videography (“photoreal” work, in the jargon). Of course, the images we tediously constructed were no more “real” than a completely hand-drawn image. For that matter, as someone with extensive experience as a photographer, I can legitimately testify that no photograph, ever, completely reflects reality.

I personally prefer images that communicate the significant elements of the design without implying that the whole has been perfectly realized and perfectly populated in a perfect world. When I am asked to do an architectural illustration, or when I illustrate my own work, usually there are quite a few details that have not been perfectly determined, and in fact won’t be determined until construction documentation, bidding or even the construction process is completed: some choices in construction and material, although they may ultimately have a visible impact in the completed building, have simply not been made because they are legitimately too far down on the list of priorities for the designer or the client. Without being dogmatic about it, it seems more honest to convey by “non-photoreal” means the general or even specific design points that have been determined, unencumbered or obstructed by less-significant visual characteristics that may or may not be part of the final realized architectural solution.

Stormhouse project perspective (2009)

Ironically enough, as my own projects – illustrated in this manner, without concession to “photorealism” – have drawn attention and a few awards, I have found myself approached by companies that produce software designed to make it ever easier to create “photorealism.” Could I – would I – test their software on my projects?  In general, this has been a very casual arrangement. The company would offer to send me an unstable preliminary “beta” version of their product, and in return I would could keep the images so created and get a “head start” with what they hope would prove “the next big thing” in architectural rendering software.

This happened three times with the Stormhouse project, within the months after it appeared in AIArchitect and on various architecture-related websites. I wasn’t happy with results of the first two products…after all, I already had the training, experience, and even (slightly older but still useful) software that would produce “photorealism” if I so desired. Which I did not, as noted above.

The third company that approached me was a bit of a surprise. The software package they wished me to test, and to test with the Stormhouse, was 3D Studio Max, the very expensive package I had used in that “high-end renderhouse.”  I had disliked it then, bitterly…the archaic user interface, besides being annoyingly cryptic, was conducive only to creating appearances – photorealistic “eye-candy,” and the assumption seemed to be that the design should be available and adaptable to the requirements of the software when one began the process of modeling.

I, on the other hand, always wanted to use computer models to evaluate and develop design elements, from hidden structure to interior sight-lines, and I want to know the precise dimensions inherent for every such consideration. This is, of course, why I did not stay at that “high-end renderhouse.”

Nevertheless, I was flattered to have been noticed and interested in trying out the newest version of software that (under normal circumstances) I considered unjustifiably expensive. These are the results, specifically of using the new “Google SketchUp importer” to translate and supposedly optimize my Stormhouse model for “photorealistic” rendering.

Stormhouse project photoreal rendering (2008)

Stormhouse project photoreal rendering (2008)

I tend to believe that my design looks rather trivialized and toy-like, as “imaged” with this software, and of course that characteristic conflicts bitterly in my estimation with the metatextual and even metaphysical narrative component of the project. And it seems to me that almost every implied material really needs “pixel-scrubbing” – a smudge here, a scratch there, a bit of rust here, before the “photoreal” renderings would conform to my intent and imaginings for this building.

And, incidentally, I found the interface for the software to be unimproved. I would not have been able to develop or even properly study my design in anything like a decent interval of time, if I had been using this software from the start for this project.  It is still a mechanism for creating “eye-candy.” And whatever the necessity and value of “eye-candy,” producing it is not a role I see for myself.

Oddly enough, the individuals that I communicated with at the company that produces the Max software, as polite and accommodating as they were, did not seem to have the slightest idea how to use it or to optimize the features I was supposedly testing. I received the impression it was being developed somewhere else by someone with whom they only sporadically communicated.

After these tests and a few frustratingly similar ones with another project, I told the software representatives that I simply had no real need for the sort of images produced by their product, or time to do further testing. I thanked them for the opportunity to study it, and un-installed the “beta” from my computer.

To my great surprise, a few months later a friend brought this video to my attention:

Now, I had shared a copy of the original Stormhouse model with the 3DS Max developers, and on close examination of some seemingly boiler-plate documents they asked me to sign I do see that I heedlessly gave them the right to use the model in any way. I suppose that it never occurred to me that they would use it to advertise their product, as their software was never used in the creation of the model or in the original published renderings. In fact, I do not believe I could have developed the project to the level of measured detail at which it currently stands using their software.

No laws were apparently broken, and in fact the text “model courtesy of Lewis Wadsworth” does appear very briefly in the lower-left of the frame in the early seconds of the video. But as “Jake” put it in a comment on this situation on the PushPullBar website,

Looks like they are going to milk that model for all it’s worth. Also, the lack of a modeling software credit would imply that it’s made with an AutoDesk product. Not cool in my opinion which, I know, doesn’t mean much.

Not cool, indeed.

Incidentally, the Stormhouse and the Pavilion for Oblivion do make legitimate cameo appearances in a recent book,  SketchUp: the Missing Manual, by Chris Grover for O’Reilly. I was a technical reviewer for the publication, and Chris graciously asked to use my projects to illustrate several didactic points.

February 7th, 2009
Categories: Architecture, Design, Illustration, Technical
Tags: , ,